Buffalo River 

MIKE MASTERSON: Watchdogs' bias

17 Jan 2019 9:46 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

MIKE MASTERSON: Watchdogs' biasImpaired Buffaloby Mike Masterson | August 7, 2018 at 2:15 a.m.

It's troubled me for years that our Department of Environmental Quality (cough) relies on the Big Creek Research and Extension Team, with an obvious agricultural bent toward protecting C&H Hog Farms, to authenticate any contamination leaking from that facility into adjacent Big Creek.

Dr. Andrew Sharpley with two team members-to-be, including the extension agent for Newton County, were working with the C&H owners in their capacity with the University of Arkansas extension service before former Gov. Mike Beebe formed that team from within the university's Division of Agriculture.

When the university accepted that watchdog responsibility to document and prevent harmful effects to our Buffalo National River, Sharpley became its chairman. At the time they were called the Big Creek Research Team. The agricultural term "extension" was later added reportedly at the suggestion of a university extension service employee.

For me and others, the team's focus on agriculture rather than environmental sciences represents a conflict of interest that has shaken trust in anything it reports, or doesn't. Sharpley has been grilled about his biases in a deposition where he denied any conflict of interest.

I was especially troubled by his actions in initially failing to readily disclose to the Department of Environmental Quality the results of Dr. Todd Halihan's 2015 electrical resistivity imaging tests, which revealed an apparent subsurface fracture beside one of the factory's waste containment ponds.

I'm also bothered by the failure to acknowledge increasing levels of fertilizer-generated nutrients found in the Buffalo tributary Big Creek until the mess became bad enough to deem the creek impaired.

This and more indicates an unacceptable agenda to assist and protect C&H rather than as an impartial watchdog over the Buffalo, portions of which also are now officially contaminated.

And because of the state agency's politically efficient draft 4(b) category of these impairments, the department is not required to discover why. Being listed 4(b) means it need not determine the source of low dissolved-oxygen levels and the river's massive algae overgrowth containing pathogens, some harmful to humans.

Adding to the politicized aspects of such failure to protect both Ozark streams, the governor has appointed two members to the state's Pollution Control and Ecology Commission who are openly supportive of the mislocated factory with 6,500 waste-generating hogs.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Commissioner Mike Freeze in February, even after Freeze had sent two letters to the Department of Environmental Quality avidly supporting C&H. He is a fish farmer and a paid member of the Farm Bureau's State Board of Directors that also contributes to C&H's legal team.

Because of his obvious conflict, Freeze was asked last week to recuse from voting in the commission's review of a finding by Administrative Law Judge Charles Moulton. Moulton recommended denying a motion by C&H attorneys seeking to allow the factory's original discontinued operating permit to remain active indefinitely. Freeze said he refused to recuse because he supposedly knows more than when he was appointed in February and therefore could be impartial (cough).

Then commissioners voted 8-3 to approve Moulton's recommended denial.

The other commissioner I believe clearly supports the factory in its present location is Bruce Holland, a former legislator and cattleman, who also directs the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. His deputy director, Ryan Benefield, was the Department of Environmental Quality's assistant director when that department approved the factory's original 2012 permit.

Holland's position matters because his commission is among the groups supposedly assigned to monitor Big Creek.

Freeze and Holland voted against Moulton's recommendation that determined C&H's coverage under its original Regulation 6 general permit had indeed ended in January when its application for the Regulation 5 permit was denied.

C&H lawyers had argued to commissioners that the factory's original general permit coverage should continue indefinitely anyway until being replaced by a Regulation 6 individual permit.

To swallow that illogical argument, one would have to agree the factory's Regulation 5 permit application (and resulting process requiring almost two years to process before being denied) was an exercise in futility. The judge's recommendation was approved despite Holland's and Freeze's no votes, along with that of retired farmer Rusty Moss of Dermott.

The argument in favor of continuing C&H's general permit coverage until it is replaced by an indefinite individual permit was in this instance ludicrous, as Moulton's opinion more politely pointed out.

And the willingness of Holland, Freeze and Moss (none lawyers) to vote against Moulton's reasoned findings I believe spoke volumes about any self-proclaimed greater knowledge and impartiality.

In light of such obvious bias among some commissioners responsible for policing pollution and enhancing ecology (not assisting agriculture), I'm hoping our governor will embrace fairness and balance by appointing commissioners from the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Sierra Club.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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